UNRWA staff accused by Israel sacked without evidence, chief admits

Philippe Lazzarini says summary dismissal of nine employees was ‘reverse due process’ after Israel’s claims they aided Hamas attack

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees has said he followed “reverse due process” in sacking nine staff members accused by Israel of being involved in Hamas’s 7 October attacks.

Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner general, said he did not probe Israel’s claims against the employees before dismissing them and launching an investigation.

At a press conference in Jerusalem, Lazzarini was asked if he had looked into whether there was any evidence against the employees and he replied: “No, the investigation is going on now.”

He described the decision as “reverse due process”, adding: “I could have suspended them, but I have fired them. And now I have an investigation, and if the investigation tells us that this was wrong, in that case at the UN we will take a decision on how to properly compensate [them].”

Lazzarini said he made the “exceptional, swift decision” to terminate the contracts of the staff members due to the explosive nature of the claims. He added that the agency was already facing “fierce and ugly attacks” at a time when it was providing aid to nearly 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

“Indeed, I have terminated without due process because I felt at the time that not only the reputation but the ability of the entire agency to continue to operate and deliver critical humanitarian assistance was at stake if I did not take such a decision,” he said.

“My judgment, based on this going public, true or untrue, was I need to take the swiftest and boldest decision to show that as an agency we take this allegation seriously.”

Israel has claimed as many as 10% of staff are Hamas supporters, and wants the organisation to be disbanded. It has accused a dozen of the agency’s 13,000 staff in Gaza of taking part in Hamas’s 7 October attacks in Israel that killed 1,200 people.

A diplomat at Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs told Lazzarini about the allegations on 18 January and nine of the 12 UNRWA employees were fired (two others were already dead). The allegations prompted the UK, the US, and 14 other nations to freeze about £350m of funding to the agency.

Lazzarini said the Israeli official told him the names of the accused staff members and the allegations they were facing. He said the official read from a “large dossier” but the agency had not been provided with a copy. He said he checked the names against a staff database before making the decision to dismiss them.

“I have seen a large dossier in the room that the person had, coming from their own internal intelligence, and he was reading this and translating for me,” he said.

“There were strong allegations, with names and for each of the name[s] associated to a given activity on that day.”

But he said that Israel did not raise concerns about the individuals when their names were submitted last year for vetting along with all 30,000 of UNRWA’s staff, who work with Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

On Thursday, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, defended the decision to fire the staff before an inquiry was complete, citing “credible” information from Israel, adding: “We couldn’t run the risk not to act immediately as the accusations were related to criminal activities.”

The UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services is investigating the allegations and is due to report its preliminary findings within weeks. A separate independent review of the agency’s risk management processes is being led by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna.

Lazzarini said the agency was operating in a “hostile” environment and it had faced new “restrictions” since Israel’s allegations were made public.

He said an Israeli bank account belonging to UNRWA had been frozen and the agency had been warned that its tax benefits would be cancelled. Lazzarini added that a consignment of food aid from Turkey, including flour, chickpeas, rice, sugar and cooking oil, that would sustain 1.1 million people for a month had been blocked at the Israeli port of Ashdod.

He claimed the contractor said the Israeli authorities had instructed the company not to move it or accept any payment from a Palestinian bank.